“Death's got an Invisibility Cloak?" Harry interrupted again. "So he can sneak up on people," said Ron. "Sometimes he gets bored of running at them, flapping his arms and shrieking...” ― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
A child’s capacity to understand death is limited, to say the least. Accepting that all living things eventually die is a tough call for everyone. After all, mortality is an utterly scary thing, and no amount of sweet words can undo it. In the presence of death, an unsettling feeling of fear creeps in and can easily takes over. Therefore, it is essential to dispel this darkness and offer comfort to our children. Help them make sense of the loss, and explain how and why it occurred. Remember that without death there would be no life. They are two sides of the same coin, even if death is its dark, sinister part.
This is something that we all learn the hard way. When my first pet died, I was a kid in a state of shock. What I could not make the sense of is how my hamster, which looked fine in the evening, became still and silent when I woke up. A chilly dread came over me, and would not let me go for weeks. It was even worse when my German Sheppard disappeared one day from the yard and never came back. This time, confusion was present, and I was imagining a plethora of terrible things that could have happened. I needed a clear answer, yet there was none to be found. The third and the most unsettling encounter with death came when my grandmother died. I adored and loved her, but I could not feel anything for some time, and felt guilty because of it.
A life experience like this suggests that children of different ages do not have the same outlook on death. As a result, they react to it in a variety of ways: From a complete lack of feeling to the overwhelming sense of grief. The most important thing to realize, however, is that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to feel about death. They are all natural reaction to the loss, so make sure a child understands that. What is more, there is no point in hiding the pain and tears from it. This hinders our attempts to portray such behavior as a humane response to the emotional suffering. As we grow older, we become readier to grasp the finality of death. Yet, it is only when people mature to teens that they start to realize that we all turn to dust one day. Then, thinking about mortality becomes a part of the search for the meaning of life. Furthermore, it is common for youngsters to have a feeling of guilt if someone close to them dies. Again, expressing and sharing inner grief is paramount to finding a way out of the dark labyrinth. Parents must be guiding lights, even when they cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel themselves. This is something that helped me immensely to get over the grief of losing my pets and grandparents. It can also be beneficial for kids to participate in meaningful rituals of farewell. They can understand the symbolic notions and be very creative about them. Still, attending the funeral is not always the best solution, which I discovered at my grandmother’s funeral. I was not explained the exact meaning of this morning ceremony and what happens there. Thus, a child is better off being told that the body of the deceased will be in a casket, and that the people will be crying. After that, a parent should give the child a choice of whether to go. Spiritual beliefs and practices may help one get through a difficult period, but they cannot be forced upon children.
Rites of passage
Parents who walk through their own grief must realize that kids cope with it differently. Tom or Birgitt, who run Affinity Funerals here in Sydney, point out to the importance of allowing children to ask questions about death. These differ from the dilemmas that adults face, and require a straightforward, simple answer. So, there is no need to sugarcoat things, or to beat around the bush. It is crucial to explain death in basic, concrete terms that a child can comprehend. Steer away from euphemisms and saying things like “the grandpa went to sleep”. Children’s view of the world is very literal, especially if they are no older than six. When they ask about the whereabouts of a late grandparent that does not imply they are wandering about the afterlife. This was also the case when I was beseeching parents to tell me what fate has befallen my dog. Hence, telling that someone bought a farm does not help, and only creates misconceptions about death. The resting place is a cemetery, and there is no need to say otherwise. Also, if the elder person has passed, then it might be a good idea to say that his or her body was not working anymore and that there was no way a doctor could fix it. Now, we may not have all the answers, but that is not even the point. The key is in creating an atmosphere of openness and comfort. This is not to say we should create an illusion of deceased miraculously returning. On the contrary, make it clear that is not going to happen. Allow the child, however, to have its own “childish ideas” about death. We have all personalized death at some point, and imagined it as a skeleton, bogeyman, or some other nightmarish creature.
An ace up the sleeve
Children should be allowed to grieve the loss their own way, knowing that parents support them every step of the way. Dealing with this situation is a process, with many peaks and valleys. When things go out of our hands, we should not shy away from seeking help. No matter how much we would like to shield kids from the sadness and pain, they are an integral part of life. Death is our greatest enemy in the sense that it might be the only one we cannot beat. Yet, without it to cast a shadow over existence, life would not be the shimmering beacon of light that it is. The greatest trick we can pull on death is to accept the menace for what it is, and help our children find the strength to do so too.